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Ben Rabinowitz: a South African Mensch who transformed lives

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Picture: Supplied – Benjamin (Bennie) Rabinowitz. ‘Bennie always held serious aspirations for the development of South African democracy. He gave his whole life to them. That he did so with such affectionate humour and grace speaks for one who – from across the aisle of faith as it were – this Christian lovingly and respectfully salutes as a true Mensch!’ the writer says.

By Chris Chivers

Every society – especially one wrestling with the sorts of injustice with which South Africa continues to wrestle – needs the likes of Ben Rabinowitz who died a few days ago.

I first met Ben, known to everyone as Bennie, through Nancy Gordon, whose late husband Gerald was a distinguished head of the Cape Bar, and with whom Bennie had worked. Nancy had evidently said to Bennie something like, “There’s this new priest from England in Cape Town, who was an anti-apartheid activist, and who loves rugby. Can you fit him into your box at Newlands for a match?”

Out of the blue, I received a call inviting me. This was followed up by several further calls to firm-up on arrangements. This alone indicated to me something special. Bennie’s attentiveness to people was always above and beyond.

We arranged to meet on the corner of Bree and Wale Streets in Cape Town, where I was then staying. “That’s where my first office as a lawyer was,” Bennie informed me, pointing to the pleasantly gabled building next to mine.

“It’s a brothel, now!” I replied. “Oh Shirley,” he suggested, turning to the wife to whom he was utterly devoted, “I’d better go and check it out!”

Instantly, humour had connected us as it did ever-after and had begun to forge a friendship which – like the ones that he struck up with countless others – is treasured as among life’s most enervating and transforming.

Bennie was an intelligent and sensitive soul – a bright Rhodes scholar from SACHS – who understood that the privileges he’d received in the context of the inequalities of apartheid – his skin colour, his UCT and Oxford education, his strongly Jewish experience of community – gave him three soft powers – always exercised by him with gentleness too – that were critical to society’s transformation.

The first was convening power. He had immense gifts to bring people together. On that first occasion he sat me next to Colin Eglin and Judge Dennis Davis. I was a bit overawed. But we were all soon chatting about the fortunes of Western Province, as they were both showing their patience to me, a young priest testing his no doubt very ill-formed, rough-and-ready theories about what was happening in the South Africa of the 1990s with two of the most astute of its citizens.

On a later occasion, at a birthday dinner in Sea Point, I vividly recall Bennie sitting me between Kader Asmal and Rhoda Kadalie as the conversation turned to the state of education, and the latter held forth on the “fool who had shut the teacher training colleges in the 1990s”. I knew the history, and scowled in a large stage whisper, “Shh Rhoda, he’s sat on the other side of me, and it was a policy he inherited not one he made”.

Luckily, Kader had not heard Rhoda, and I didn’t fill him in when he asked me what on earth she’d been “sounding off about”. But Bennie noticed, his eyes sparkling with amusement. Later, we often recalled what might have been an awkward few minutes as we continued the discussion about the state of education.

His passion to create opportunity especially for the youngest citizens, shaped his second soft power which was his ability not only to use his resource directly to assist the disadvantaged in so many ways but also instinctively to understand the significance of what we now call cultural capital. Whether it was saving the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, and ensuring it’s outreach projects were at the forefront of its development, funding exhibitions, preventing developer encroachment and damage to the natural environment of the Cape, saving the newspaper now known as the Mail and Guardian – a vital organ in the promotion of political accountability and societal critique –creating sporting opportunities for young people – he adored cricket as well as rugby – or giving the R2k – whatever it took – to a community initiative that would match local effort and take it to the next level, Bennie did whatever he could to assist.

Crucially, he combined this with his convening skills to inspire others to do the same. He absolutely got what it meant to be a citizen and, as such, to take responsibility and to act. He had his own political stance in this – first a supporter of the Progressive Party and then of the DA. But he was never an unqualified supporter, as he was not blind to the problems with either, nor uncritical of bad policy or crucially for Bennie – of the sort of hectoring tone which for him in recent years had marred the development of a genuine ability to oppose with that combination of support and criticism necessary in any flourishing democracy.

Bennie was the sort who showed respect across the aisle – as his friendship with Kader Asmal revealed.

Indeed, respect for anyone and everyone was the foundation of who he was. On another social occasion, I recall being sat opposite him with Lorna and Leon Levy, and his cousin Albie Sachs, as those gathered breaking bread interrogated what was happening in the then Zuma government – at a time of some considerable disarray. That we did so with a dispassionate tone that focussed on issues not personalities – whilst nonetheless very much aware of matters of personal integrity – stemmed from Bennie’s desire never to make petty political jibes – that was absolutely not his style – but to make South Africa better for all. In this, his was a presence that always set a framework of mutual respect and co-operation, never descending to the level of conflict and denigration to which politics has more recently sunk.

His third soft power was quite simply his big-hearted vulnerability. He was an emotional man. I once had the privilege of giving a lecture at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre on remembrance of the Shoah and how this challenged me as a Christian given centuries of anti-Judaism that had tragically transformed itself into such destructive anti-Semitism. As I interspersed my reflections with music from Annelies by James Whitbourn, the only person ever allowed to set Anne Frank’s diary to music, I could see the tears running down Bennie’s face. He was so emotional that he was completely unable to speak to me at the end of the lecture but he sent me a note that as a Christian and one proud to call Bennie a friend I will always treasure.

I suspect that he had no idea how much people treasured him and simply did not ever appreciate the love and respect in which he was held. He seemed in his mix of self-deprecation and self-doubt to question the significance of his life and to wonder whether he’d really made a difference. This of course is only a question ever asked by those who are striving with every sinew to transform the lot of those much less fortunate than themselves and who are truly humble in character.

At Desmond Tutu’s 75th birthday concert in St George’s Cathedral which I’d worked with Barry Smith – another of Bennie’s many musical beneficiaries – to organise, I had a small opportunity to begin to repay Bennie’s consistent hospitality and kindness.

I sat him and Shirley next to me, as my guests, and will always recall the enormous laughter that emanated from him. I’d organised for all the Arch’s friends to write messages in a book, and for this to be presented to the Arch by Evita Bezuidenhout. As Pieter-Dirk Uys arrived with koeksisters and a selection of her diverse ‘grandchildren’ Bennie’s Infectious laughter began to be almost uncontrollable. “Who’d have thought,” he said, “in the dark days of apartheid, that a Jewish boy from Sea Point would be rolling around the aisles of an Anglican cathedral as a Jewish drag Queen was giving koeksisters to an Archbishop and kissing him on the lips!”

Bennie always held serious aspirations for the development of South African democracy. He gave his whole life to them. That he did so with such affectionate humour and grace speaks for one who – from across the aisle of faith as it were – this Christian lovingly and respectfully salutes as a true Mensch!

Chris Chivers was formerly precentor of St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town and now teaches Religion and Philosophy at UCL Academy, London.